Sheikh Jarrah, occupied East Jerusalem – Huddled around an electric heater on a chilly winter day, four Palestinian women sit nervously, making calls to acquaintances to ask about homes for rent in the city.
“We can’t leave it to the last minute. We have to figure it out – the Israelis can come at any time to evict us from our homes,” says 31-year-old Ramziyeh Sabbagh. She is due to give birth to a baby girl in five days.
“My husband is in denial that we may be evicted,” says Khadija Sabbagh, Ramziyeh’s aunt. “I don’t know what we’re going to do. We only have God at this point.”
Umm Alaa Skafi, who lives next door and whose family is also facing eviction, came over to check on her dear neighbour.
“Keep praying. Don’t let your mind wander. Keep yourself busy. I am here for you. I’ll make a dish and bring it over for you and your family,” Umm Alaa tells Khadija.
On January 12, Israeli authorities handed an eviction order to the Sabbagh family – numbering about 45 people – so Israeli settlers could move into their homes.
The five Sabbagh brothers, their wives, children and grandchildren were given until January 23 to leave their homes. On Tuesday, lawyers representing the family said Israeli authorities agreed to freeze the eviction until a final decision was reached within a month. The families have lived there since 1956.
They were forcibly displaced from their hometown of Jaffa during the 1948 Palestinian Nakba – the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Zionist militias to create the state of Israel. Having had relatives in the nearby neighbourhood of Wadi al-Joz, they settled in Jerusalem.
Along with UNRWA, the United Nations’ relief agency for Palestinian refugees, Jordan, which assumed control of the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem, provided apartments for 28 Palestinian refugee families, including the Sabbagh family, in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.
Battle to evict Palestinians
Not long after the 1967 War, in which Israel occupied East Jerusalem, settler groups began claiming ownership of a number of properties. In 2003, the groups, which claimed they had registered the lands in their names in 1972, sold the property to Nahalat Shimon, a settler company that is registered overseas.
Nahalat Shimon then launched a lengthy legal battle to evict several Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah. In 2009, the company evicted three families. In 2017, another family was told to leave.
In November 2018, after more than a decade of legal proceedings, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected the appeal made by the lawyers representing the Sabbagh family, in which they sought to challenge the settler group’s ownership of the land.
The Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling in which it refused to open the question over who owned the land or to examine the documents put forth by the families and their lawyers, on the basis of the statute of limitations having expired.
“We’ve been here for 62 years. Even if we are not the owners of the land, or the building, how are there laws that allow for the eviction of people after 62 years?” says 70-year-old Mohammad Sabbagh, the eldest brother who fled with his parents to Jerusalem before the rest of his siblings were born.
“We had one apartment in 1956. When the family grew, we built homes next door for my brothers and their families. Every stone, tile and wall in these homes is telling of the fact that we have been here for 62 years,” he tells Al Jazeera.
“The situation we’re in breaks my heart. It’s very, very hard,” he says, his voice trembling.
The Sabbagh family home in Jaffa still stands. But under discriminatory Israeli law, Palestinians, unlike Jews, cannot claim homes they fled during 1948, meaning they are barred from returning.
Zakaria Odeh, director of the Civic Coalition for Palestinian Rights in Jerusalem – the association providing the lawyers – explains there is little hope for the families.
“The courts have refused to even examine the files. We know that we are under Israeli occupation, dealing with the occupation’s courts, but we’re trying to postpone the eviction as much as possible,” Odeh tells Al Jazeera.
“The general political atmosphere has encouraged the Israeli government and the settler groups to intensify their efforts – particularly with this unrestricted support from the United States government under Trump,” he continued.
While the eviction of the Sabbagh family is the most imminent, there are at least nine other families from Sheikh Jarrah whose legal proceedings are ongoing.
And the case of Sheikh Jarrah is not unique. Israeli settler groups, many of which are supported by the government, have long targeted – and managed to move into – a number of Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem.
In Silwan, south of the Old City, some 700 Palestinians are currently facing eviction and displacement.
Since Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories in 1967, the Israeli population living in East Jerusalem and the West Bank has risen to between 600,000 and 750,000. The figure means roughly 11 percent of Israel’s 6.6 million Jewish population now lives on occupied land, outside the internationally recognised borders of their state, in contravention of international law.
Ignoring the law
Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, which defines humanitarian protections for civilians caught in a war zone, an occupying power is forbidden from transferring parts of its civilian population into the territory it occupies.
This aims to ensure that occupation is temporary, to protect civilians from the theft of resources, to prohibit a de facto situation in which two groups living on the same land are subject to two different legal systems and to prevent changes in the demographic makeup of the occupied territory.
Back in Sheikh Jarrah, the Sabbagh families are frantic with worry and fear.
“I watched them evict our neighbours,” says 55-year-old Khadija, the wife of Mohammad’s brother. “It was horrific. They raided their homes while they were sleeping and kicked them out.”
“I prefer death to this kind of life; this slow torture that eats away at your nerves,” Khadija continues with tears streaming down her cheeks.
“If they’re going to evict us from here, then let them give us our homes in Jaffa back. We still have the key to our home in Jaffa. I know we will return someday.”
Khadija’s 15-year-old daughter chuckles at her mother’s remarks.
“Keep dreaming,” she says.